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New State Law Treats Pets More like Children in Custody Cases

Chicago Tribune
December 25, 2017
by Leonor Vivanco-Prengaman

A spousal split can lead to a contentious custody fight over four-legged fur babies.

According to a new state law effective Jan. 1, judges in divorce proceedings can consider the well-being of companion animals in allocating sole or joint ownership.

"It sort of starts treating your animal more like children" instead of property, said Illinois state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, who sponsored the legislation and is a self-proclaimed animal lover. "If you’re going before a judge, they’re allowed to take the best interest of the animal into consideration."

The law, similar to one in Alaska, applies only to pets that are marital assets, not service animals.

Pets are another issue to hash out in a divorce, in addition to money, children and possessions. For years, pets have been treated no differently than other pieces of property to be divvied up between the couple.

Most couples are able to reach an agreement on pets outside of court, said Jeffrey Knipmeyer, a partner at Nottage and Ward, a family law practice in Chicago. In his 21 years of experience, Knipmeyer has tried the issue in court only a few times.

According to a recent survey of the Chicago-based American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, about 30 percent of attorneys have seen a decrease over the past three years in pet custody cases in front of a judge.

But when a pet custody case does reach the court, the state law can be helpful in giving judges guidance on how to make the decision, said Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Over the last decade, the question of pet custody has become more prevalent, particularly when it involves a two-income couple with no children who shared responsibility for and are both attached to the pet, she said.

The new law gives judges more leeway in deciding what to do with a pet instead of simply giving it to one side or the other, Knipmeyer said.

The matter could be resolved with both parties sharing custody or, as the law calls it, joint ownership.

"It’s a positive step in the law to include now a consideration for the well-being of the animal," he said. "Most pet owners think of their dogs as being something more than a piece of property. They think of them as a member of their family."

Copyright 2018, Chicago Tribune

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